Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bullock's Film Leans on The Bland Side

Last week, Sandra Bullock’s Oscar-nominated film The Blind Side was released on DVD. Despite all the negative internet and movie chatter, I finally took the opportunity to check it out. Besides, if it was nominated for Best Picture and Sandra Bullock won an award for Best Actress (and a standing ovation), it couldn’t be that bad. Right?

For those of you who by some impressive media acrobatics are still unaware, The Blind Side is based on a real story about how the Tuohy family took in and adopted an African American teenager named Mike Oher. According to the film, Mike isn’t well educated, but he has defensive instincts, which makes him a natural fit for football. The film is intended as a feel-good family film, spotlighting Sandra Bullock as the feisty Tuohy matriarch, Leigh-Ann.

This would be a fine film if it didn’t toss logic out the window, fail to create any depth, or if it presented anything realistically (I’m sure this is where people will start hitting the ‘back’ button on their browser).

The Blind Side is written and directed by John Lee Hancock (The Rookie, The Alamo). I’m not familiar with Hancock’s short filmography, but it seems hit and miss and to lean on heartwarming or familiar. In a way, the problem with The Blind Side isn’t that it tries to be heartwarming or familiar, but that it tries so hard to be those things that it loses any nuance or personality. Yes, it tries to be “awe schucks” cute and “ain’t that something” inspiring, but it fails because it doesn’t earn what it’s striving for.

There is barely an arc in this film. Since there’s hardly anything in this film to spoil, I can tell you the film does gradually build toward Mike’s education and success as a football player (seriously, not a spoiler if you’ve seen any feel-good underachiever movies at all). But this arc is presented in an emotionally flat manner.

Sandra Bullock’s character is as much a lead as Mike, but her character has less of an arc than him. She’s immediately presented as rich, generous, devoted to her family, stubborn, and feisty. Her sole development is she ‘allows’ Mike to choose which college to go to. Before you get on my case about that being a spoiler let me remind you that it isn’t even what the movie is about and ask you this: were you really on the edge of your seat over which college Mike was going to choose? Is that really what you took from this movie?

Speaking of Bullock, her performance is fine. It is as good as you can hope for in these kinds of films, but the best performance by a female lead all year?! I had to look hard through Oscar’s history of Best Actress nominees to find a performance that lacked subtlety or depth as much as Bullock’s performance in The Blind Side. I came up with Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary… maybe. This role is cut from the Brockovich cloth, only it’s more like the polyester of that cloth – it’s a lower grade. How Bullock received a standing ovation for this performance is beyond me. My only conclusion is popularity (which would explain why Streep was the only other name seriously considered as competition). I’ve written about this particular issue previously and seeing Bullock’s performance only validated my previous claims. Her performance in Crash was more convincing than this – by this standard Bullock should’ve not only won an award, but also brought the Oscar ceremony’s roof down in 2007.

All the other characters in The Blind Side seemed to revolve around these two leads instead of adding layers to the situation Leigh-Anne creates. Her husband has no feelings about a homeless stranger living in his home. Mike apparently has a problem with men, but that’s never explored between him and Tim McGraw’s Mr. Tuohy. A relationship with the daughter and Mike is teased, but never dealt with. Every teacher at Mike’s school is either a one-note snob or is giving him a chance (all the while failing to teach Mike to read). The characters from the projects have an opportunity to bring intensity and realism to the proceedings, but end up being one-note bad guys (oh, except that one guy who ends up in the paper to make sure you got the point). The football coach apparently can’t train to save his life, because the success of the entire team depends on one left tackle – and he was trained by a kid. Oh, and apparently southern racists just need a little humility to shut them down completely.

Nobody gives us a reason why they care about Mike Oher. And every white person seems to make decisions they think is best for him throughout the movie without any resistance or conflict from Mike. Did I mention Mike apparently has an I.Q. of 80?  That’s five more than Forrest Gump!  But nobody treats him like he’s retarded.

The Blind Side isn’t a terrible movie. If you like your movies to gloss over relationships between characters, avoid any realistic depictions of racial issues, or lack any arc or character development then The Blind Side is a pleasant enough film. It is a film that claims it’s about real life, but is really just a gross distortion of life aimed at making you feel good. I’m just not sure which side I’m supposed to feel good about: people like Mike Oher or rich white people. Both are bland here.

Should you see it? Skip


The Blind Side is now on DVD and Blu-Ray

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Film Faves: 2007

The year 2007 was the worst year of the decade for movies.  There.  I said it.  Yes, it was the year that There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, and Atonement all were released.  I understand those are great films; it's not that I hate them or fail to see their greatness.  But they are only three films out of a hundred or so and not exactly movies I'm in a hurry to watch again. 

Unlike 2006 or 2008, 2007 was a year that really lacked excitement.  I'm sorry, but I was never excited about another action epic based on a theme park attraction.  Spider-Man 3 failed to live up to expectations.  I barely remember the Harry Potter film.  And I cared even less about another cash-grab with that green ogre.  Honestly, with the exception of the Harry Potter film, none of these turned out to be very good films, yet they are what audiences payed paid the most money to see.

Even as I look through my dozen picks for my favorite films of the year, I really have a hard time conjuring up much more excitement than "Meh..." Yes, 2007 was a very difficult year for me to revisit.  I spent quite a bit of time staring at the list of movies released that year, trying to have anything to say about any of them.  Woe is me, right?

Well, I managed to dig up twelve movies I enjoyed most from 2007.  I had to jog my memory for some of these.  But they are all worth revisiting anyway.  Here are my favorite films of...


12. The Orphanage

Sort of a Spanish The Others (yes, I'm aware of the irony in that statement). This is another effective ghost story about a mom and her kid. This was pretty much overlooked everyone who isn’t a hardcore horror fan. The ending is sad in a way, but strangely a relief. Also noteworthy: this is one of those rare horror films that relies more on tension and perception than gore.

11. Enchanted

This was the surprise of the year. An incredibly funny balance between the Disney fantasy aesthetic and a parody of that aesthetic. Amy Adams proves herself capable of carrying a big-budget film.

10. Planet Terror

Some people really appreciate Tarantino’s motor-mayhem half of Grindhouse. Being the fan of From Dusk ‘till Dawn that I am, I adored this wildly over-the-top action gore-fest so much more. I’ll watch Marley Shelton in practically anything now. Also, how cool is it to see Jeff Fahey again?

9. Simpsons Movie

I’m a bit burned-out of this since my son watched it every weekend for a while. But this is the movie all the (reasonable) fans were hoping it would be. It’s hilarious, but also gets to what makes The Simpsons more than a slapstick pop culture satire: it has heart.

8. Juno

While this may be facing a bit of a backlash these days, one of the things that are great about it is that underneath all the sarcasm and wit, there’s a scared little girl there who doesn’t know how to better deal with her situation. Ellen Page is superb and so is the writing. I really should revisit this one soon.

7. Knocked Up

Hilarious movie! Seth Rogen does an excellent job balancing between unmotivated slacker and concerned father-to-be. Ken Jeong is hilarious as the doctor called in for delivery. What’s great about Knocked Up that many people don’t realize is it’s the antidote to the typical rom-com that features two perfect people falling in love; Rogen and Heigl are the opposite of perfect and therefore more relatable. A lot of people prefer 40 Year-Old Virgin, but Knocked Up is thus far Judd Apatow’s best.

6. 1408

Finally, a great Stephen King film and a great horror film. 2007 was a good year for the return of the Stephen King horror film. When was the last good adaptation of his horror works? Anyway, this may not end the same as King’s short story, but is a solid ghost story with another great turn by John Cusack.

5. Superbad

For me, this is a toss-up with Knocked Up as the funniest film of 2007. I expected this to another mediocre teen comedy that relies on profanity and obvious sex jokes to get by. Thankfully, this is not the case at all. Yes, it is profane and has a wealth of sex jokes (for crying out loud, it is about the quest to get laid!). But it doesn’t always take the obvious route and has more than its share of surprises. Jonah Hill really stands out as the central comedic figure here. But, like anything associated with Judd Apatow, it’s got more going on than just the next sex joke. I really enjoyed this one.

4. The Mist

The Mist edges out 1408 (the other Stephen King horror pic of the year) because it is much more about the horrors within ourselves than the horrors occurring outside. This is in many ways a morality play. Thomas Jane proves he can be more than a killing machine and Marcia Gay Harden gives one of the best performances of her career. I wish we could see more from Laurie Holden. But, oh, that ending…

3. Sunshine

Up until last year’s Moon, this was the smartest and best sci-fi film I’d seen in years. Directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later), Sunshine is about a space crew sent to succeed where another crew failed and re-ignite the dying sun. Yes, Cillian Murphy is great, but so is Chris Evans, who gives the best performance of his career. It is a beautifully shot, intelligent, yet sadly overlooked film.

2. Waitress

What a refreshing little film! This is one of my few favorites of 2007 that I truly love. Keri Russell is spectacular as the anti-Hollywood mom-to-be. Nathan Fillion proves once again that everything he touches is gold. This is not a store-bought Plain Jane delight. It is a home-made rare delicacy. And one of the best stories about motherhood I’ve ever seen.

1. Transformers

Waitress almost knocked this to the number two spot. But I can’t lie: I enjoyed Transformers more than any other movie of 2007. It wasn’t a great movie, but then again 2007 wasn’t a great year for movies. Transformers had its weaknesses (ahem, John Turturro, I’m looking at you!). But coming from the much maligned Michael Bay, this was a far better movie than it had any right to be. Contrary to its reputation, it actually had a coherent, satisfactory story. You won’t find any depth or heart here. But what we do have is a fun, well-plotted action film – and the best film based on an action figure or cartoon to date! Yes, Michael Bay blew it with the sequel (despite all its financial earnings). But I prefer to enjoy Transformers for what it is as a stand-alone feature.

You see what I mean?  I'm kidding.  Those are my favorite films of 2007.  Interestingly, this edition of Film Faves really inspired me to watch some of these films again, as well as movies that didn't make the list like 300.  I hope it did the same for you.  Got any favorites from that year you'd like to share?  Feel free to leave a comment below.

Wimpy Kid is Strong Adaptation

I remember during those final years of grade school being rather disliked for being clumsy and weak. My friend and I were two of those kids who just ended up together because hardly anybody else would give us the time of day. But that didn’t prevent me from occasionally picking on him, as I did the day I pulled his sweats down in fourth grade during a fire drill. That didn’t exactly get me the esteem from my class that I was expecting. The same was true as I entered middle school and suddenly decided to turn coat on my gawky friend in order to improve my chances of making newer, better friends. In short, I acted like a jerk under the pretense that it would improve my standing with others.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the live-action adaptation of the Jeff Kinney book series directed by Thor Freudenthal (Hotel for Dogs), reminded me of that time of my life.

Like A Christmas Story or The Wonder Years, Wimpy Kid follows an imperfect adolescent as he navigates a specific time of his life; in this case, the transition from the age of boogers and play dates to that of being cool and noticing the opposite sex. Like Kevin Arnold of The Wonder Years, kids will root for Diary’s Greg Heffley while adults will recognize the lessons his endlessly selfish and defensive intellect has yet to glean. Greg isn’t a bad kid, he’s just misguided and over-confident. So certain is he that being at the top of the popularity hierarchy is the key to Tween-Topia that he endlessly tries to be what he thinks is a better version of himself. The humor in the film comes in part from Greg’s bafflement when each of his ideas result in the humiliation or social exile he’s trying so desperately to avoid. He’s like a rat in a race of his own creation, constantly running into walls and trying different paths to a goal that doesn’t exist the way he sees it.

Kinney’s source faux-diary is a hilarious, yet episodic account of Greg’s events through his first year in middle school. It doesn’t have much of a story, but really connects through its humor and easy way it allows you to sympathize with Greg while also realizing his flaws – even when he doesn’t realize them. The film, written by Jackie and Jeff Filgo (That ‘70s Show), nicely takes as much of the hilarious episodes as possible, altering the little details in favor of the overall essence and tone, and creates a satisfying story about self-image and friendship. It doesn’t dumb down or preach to its audience. Nor does it become heavy-handed with its message or rely too heavily on gross-out jokes. This is surprisingly a rare thing in the family film genre. I’m reminded of The Sandlot or Freaks and Geeks, only instead of the ‘70s or ‘80s, Wimpy Kid takes place in the present. This is an important detail (especially hinted at by an ‘80s self-image class film). Instead of being nostalgic, the film suggests these messages are true of all generations. And that’s what makes it so relatable.

What sells Diary of a Wimpy Kid is its cast. Greg Heffley is played by Zachary Gordon, whose career mostly consists of voice work with the notable exception of appearing in the prologue to last year’s con film The Brothers Bloom. The movie depends on him and he steps up to deliver an acceptable performance. Virtually unknown Robert Capron gives a stand-out performance as Greg’s innocent and lovable pal Rowley. Rowley follows along Greg’s plans even when they hurt Rowley the most, all along quietly staying true to himself. It’s a role that could’ve either been goofy or syrupy, but instead comes off the most genuine.

And then there’s Chloe Moretz. Remember that name. This tween appeared in last year’s (500) Days of Summer as Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s sister (himself someone who could be mistaken for Zachary Gordon’s big brother). She’ll soon turn heads (if not blow them off) as the pint-sized Hit Girl in next month’s Kick Ass and this fall’s Let Me In, as the lead in the U.S. remake of the Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In. In Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Chloe plays Angie Steadman, the 7th grade voice of reason and maturity that Greg doesn’t want to hear. Hers is an original character not taken from the source but if she sounds slightly too wise beyond her years it’s because she serves as a sort of mouthpiece for the audience observing Greg’s ordeals. Only a talent like Moretz can pull it off and still feel like part of the fabric of the story.

Not everything here works. Patty Farrell (Laine MacNeill), the school’s uptight brat is so over-the-top that she’s at times closer to an actual sketch than a real character. And there’s a sudden appearance by some high-schoolers near the end that may have been directly from the source, but seems flimsy on screen.

While there are a handful of pieces that don’t quite work in Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the overall film remains an amusing and intelligent adaptation of the book and a fine reflection of early adolescence. While it may not be in the same class as A Christmas Story, The Wonder Years, or Freaks & Geeks, Diary of a Wimpy Kid can stand with head held high by their side.

Should you see it? Buy tickets


Diary of a Wimpy Kid is in theaters now.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Gervais Almost Gets Away with Lying

I was shocked this morning to learn The Invention of Lying was released on DVD not one but two months ago! So, I’m a bit late to the party here and feel like this could almost be another edition of Remember That Movie. My apologies.

The Invention of Lying is one of those ‘clever’ high-concept films whose premise can be summed up in a few words: in a world where everybody only speaks the truth, one man gains the ability to lie. The film works that premise rather well, but still falls short of brilliance. The Invention of Lying explores what a world without lying would be like: advertising is straight-forward, films are historical readings, dates lack any pretense, and the office environment can be cold and depressing.

The problem that occurred to me almost immediately is the film isn’t very clear about its own rules. It seemed to me that people weren’t simply speaking the truth; they were saying everything that came to mind. And it seems to confuse opinion or faulty memory with lying. The entire impetus of the main character’s (Ricky Gervais) discovery seems to ignore the possibility that he simply remembered wrong and made a mistake. I don’t want to spoil anything, but he tells someone an incorrect number and that someone believes him instead of a computer with the correct number. The movie is much more flagrant about its characters spitting out every thought that pops in their head. It quickly gets to a point in the beginning where it feels more like a drama exercise than a living, breathing world.

Thankfully, that all passes once it gets past the set-up and focuses on Gervais’s Mark Bellison. As mentioned before, Bellison begins to lie in a world without lies or deception. What’s surprising is he initially uses lying to improve the lives of others. But once someone in his life is faced with death, Bellison quickly comes up with the idea of death being the portal to eternal happiness. This is where the film takes a surprising turn for the rest of its run as a commentary on the fallacy of religion. Thankfully, the film has the intelligence to follow-up on the effects of creating such a ‘lie’. With this, The Invention of Lying takes a great idea and takes it to another brilliant level.

Unfortunately, while it picks up steam with this idea, it sort of flat lines by the end. The reason: a romantic comedy element is wedged into the film. The film begins with Bellison going on a date with Anna (Jennifer Garner). It’s a great scene that illustrates an excellent element of the world the film creates. Anna is immediately uninterested in Mark and treats him with indifference throughout the date. End of joke, moving on. No, for whatever reason, Mark returns to Anna sincerely wanting to prove himself a worthy mate. Because the film is mostly interested in the concept of a lie in a naïve world, we’re not given a reason why Mark desires Anna’s company. The romance is completely devoid of any heart or reason to care. At one point, Mark says of Anna that she’s the sweetest, most caring person he knows, but we never see that. Anna is kind enough to befriend Mark, but never ceases to criticize his genetic make-up or go much beyond skin-deep. The film eventually puts this relationship first above all the ideas it spent the previous hour or so laying out, thereby ending with the relationship’s unnatural conclusion and leaving the rest of the story behind. This is extremely unfortunate because I couldn’t care less about the relationship.

What’s more, the film doesn’t exactly stay faithful to its set-up. In the beginning of the film, Garner says whatever is on her mind. But by the end of the film, she’s clearly thinking things, but no longer shooting them out of her mouth. This isn’t a piece of character development; there is no reason for this change other than oversight. Also noticeable, the film seems to equate honesty with superficiality and cold cruelty. Yet, Mark seems like an outsider without the same capacity for callously blunt honesty as everybody else from the beginning.

There are some very funny moments and brilliant ideas in The Invention of Lying. It’s a shame it all gets compromised and fails its potential due to an uninteresting romantic comedy subplot. The result is a movie of two minds: one for the date movie and rom-com fans; the other for those looking for a fresh and unique comedy. The movie falls short on both fronts (especially the romance), but is recommendable for what it does offer: an intriguing commentary on religion.

Should you see it? Rent


The Invention of Lying is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Humpday Overcomes Indie Film Fears

“We’re doing this because it scares us more than anything else.”

Ben is married and settling down to domestic life with the possibility of fatherhood on the horizon. Andrew is a traveling loner who lives simply while seeing the world and going wherever he pleases. Ben and Andrew are long-time friends who rarely see each other, but whose friendship is such that it picks right where it left off years before. One night, hours after Ben and his wife Anna pass out from an exhausting day, Andrew shows up. It’s been so long since Ben and Andrew last saw each other that Anna’s never met Andrew. Ben joins Andrew the following night for dinner and while smoking joints and hookahs they come up with an idea for an art project in a local newspaper’s amateur porn festival. The idea: to shoot an art film featuring both heterosexual pals having sex with each other.

Humpday, directed by Lynn Shelton, sounds like one of those fringe art house films a la The Brown Bunny that’s built around a single sexually provocative scene. Instead what we’re treated to is a buddy comedy with an indie film aesthetic. The aesthetic comes not only from the extremely cheap budget, but also the fact that most of the film’s dialogue is improvised. What could’ve been very clumsy, disaffecting, and boring ends up being very funny, intriguing, and believable.

It’s all due to the nuanced performances by Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair, Greenberg) and Joshua Leonard (The Blair Witch Project, Live from Baghdad). Upon Andrew’s arrival, Ben talks to Andrew about the merits of his station in life. The following day, Andrew tries picking up and having dinner with a random woman at a store (turns out, she’s got a girlfriend and has no interest in his man-parts), trying to experience the one thing Ben has that Andrew hasn’t. Ben and Andrew’s project becomes a challenge for both of them. For Ben it’s an opportunity to prove his masculinity and ability to freely do what he wants despite his marriage; for Andrew it’s to finally accomplish something in his life. And their “Will they? Won’t they?” climatic scene is both comical and played with authenticity to the characters’ friendship.

Alicia Delmore must also be commended as Anna, the befuddled wife of Ben. Her character is so tolerant that she allows Andrew’s unspecified random stay, a jarring knick-knack to stay on her mantle, and gets past a ruined dinner plan – among other things. Delmore does a great job of displaying her discomfort or dismay with a single look, be it a sideways glance or blank gaze. She could’ve been so broad about her reactions, but she isn’t and it really helps sell the moments when Ben seems to be digging himself into a whole lot of trouble with her.

Humpday could’ve been a racy film about sex. It could’ve been about how male friendships can ruin a marriage. It could’ve even been some somber Sean Penn film with Pearl Jam’s ‘Off He Goes’ as its theme. But it isn’t. And it’s far more interesting and amusing as a result. Plus, it is the rare Seattle movie that doesn’t show off its location. I wouldn’t know it was set in Seattle if they hadn’t mentioned The Stranger or outright said they were in Seattle. Humpday is a greatly overlooked indie comedy that everyone should try to find anywhere they can.

Should you see it? Rent


Humpday is available on DVD now.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Welcome Back, Oscar? A Look at the 2010 Academy Awards

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I criticized the Academy Awards in analysis and also posted my picks for this year’s honors. As you more than likely already saw in every news outlet on TV or the internet, the Oscars were held Sunday night. I thought it was worth following up on this subject by quickly running through the outcome of each award as it compared to my picks. Perhaps more interestingly, I thought I’d also take a look at this year’s awards and how they followed or diverged from my previous criticisms and open the discussion up to my readers.

Let’s start by reviewing the nine awards of which I posted my picks of the winners and how those picks compare with the outcomes.

Best Visual Effects:      My PickAvatar

I believe this category was populated by only sci-fi films. With its astounding CGI innovation and the occasionally effective 3D camera effects, Avatar was the no-brainer champion here.

Best Original Screenplay:        My PickInglorious Basterds
                                               WinnerThe Hurt Locker

I was quite convinced that with its brilliant dialogue and depth, Inglorious Basterds would be a lock for this award – possibly being the film’s only award. I was proved wrong. What’s interesting is the screenplay for The Hurt Locker, while better than others, isn’t what made it great. Some also consider this award often to be an indication of what will win Best Picture.

Best Animated Feature:         My PicksUp or Fantastic Mr. Fox

Yes, I gave two possible picks. My first choice was Up, simply because it had the emotional center that Fantastic Mr. Fox lacked. That made me care more about the characters and have an easier time sticking with them through their wild third-act adventure.

Best Supporting Actress:      My Picks – Mo’Nique or Up in the Air gals
                                             Winner: Mo’Nique

Perhaps the performances by Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga were of such equal magnificence that they would make impossible awarding one over the other. But in a year that has a performance like Mo’Nique’s, it becomes a moot point. I picked Mo’Nique even before seeing Precious and after seeing it I wrote that she delved into some really dark and psychologically messed up places. Like the Best Supporting Actor winner, Mo’Nique took what would normally be a one-dimensional monster and made something quite extraordinary out of it.

Best Supporting Actor:     My Pick – Christoph Waltz
                                         Winner – Christoph Waltz

Have I seen any other performance? No. But I’ve listened to enough analyses of the performances by Harrelson, Tucci, and Damon to understand there wasn’t a character that compared to the brilliance, craftiness, dimension, or villainy of Waltz’s so-called ‘Jew Hunter’. Look out for Mr. Waltz in the future; he is a staggering talent.

Best Actress:    My Picks – Carey Mulligan or Gabourey Sidibe
                         Winner – Sandra Bullock

I have nothing to say about this. I don’t mean that out of stubborn bitterness. I’ve already said so much about this award that the only thing I can do right now is watch The Blind Side and compare the performances before saying anything more. I will note I listed my initial two picks less in order of preference than alphabetically; Gabourey was my top pick.

Best Actor:     My Picks – Jeremy Renner or George Clooney
                       Winner – Jeff Bridges

I missed Crazy Heart, having to make the difficult Sophie’s Choice between it and Precious one night and have yet to get another opportunity to see it. This is too bad for me, because everybody spoke highly of this performance as they did of Mo’Nique in Precious and I wanted to see how he compared to Renner’s human time bomb in The Hurt Locker. I look forward to catching Crazy Heart on DVD next month.

Best Director:    My Picks – Kathryn Bigelow or James Cameron
                          Winner – Kathryn Bigelow

This was great to see. Cameron achieved a lot, but perhaps he’s already had his moment of glory what with the media attention and blockbusting box office wins for two months. It was Bigelow’s turn and she deserved it because if anything made The Hurt Locker what it was, it was its direction.

Best Picture:    My PicksThe Hurt Locker or Inglorious Basterds
                        WinnerThe Hurt Locker

This was such a relief! It seemed that once Oscar night finally arrived, everyone was talking about either Avatar or The Hurt Locker winning this award. No one was even considering anything else as they had a month ago, which is too bad in a way because Inglorious Basterds is a great film and should not get lost in the shuffle or forgotten by anybody. Between The Hurt Locker and Avatar the best film won.

So, six out of nine of my picks won. I don’t think that’s as much an indication of my genius as it is of how predictable the awards were this year if you’ve seen the nominees. But was it predictable because the popular nominees won, as with the Golden Globes? Or because the best nominees won?

In my essay about the Best Picture award, I observed the decline of the award’s integrity over the years: “Little by little, we’ve seen the movies that everybody saw take home the Oscar”. I noted the highest-grossing film of the year, Avatar, was nominated this time – and it subsequently appeared to have been a front-runner. I also acknowledged that other circumstances such as particular stories and genres, political and business influences sometimes come into play.

Yet, if you take another look at the winners listed above (with possible exception of Sandra Bullock’s win), can it be claimed that any of these circumstances played a role this year? Did the most popular nominees win or the best ones?

I think it’s important to note that in a year when the movie that knocked Best Picture winner Titanic off its box office throne was nominated for the same award, one of the lowest-grossing nominees won instead. The Hurt Locker took in a total $14.7 million (according to Box Office Mojo). That’s over $278 million less than the second-highest grossing nominee, Up, and only five million more than the lowest-grossing nominee, A Serious Man (which has enjoyed a popular month on DVD). This is the first time one of the bottom-grossing nominees won Best Picture since 1987’s The Last Emperor won.

I ask you, the reader, after taking all this in consideration, did it matter that the Best Picture award was expanded to ten nominees?

And more importantly, after over a decade of questionable integrity, did Oscar redeem himself Sunday night and honor the best in film artistry this year?

Please write your thoughts below in the comments section and tell me what you think about these questions and this year’s Academy Awards.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Film Faves: 2008

Welcome to the second edition of Film Faves.  This time I look at my favorite films of 2008.

Just as a reminder, this feature is not to be taken as a serious, unbiased statement on movies.  This is a list of the movies I enjoyed most are most likely to watch again or own.  It is a favorites list that will feature my top 12 favorite movies of the year.  Now, withouth further ado:


12. The Wrestler

The second best film of its year – and among the ten greatest of its decade. This was a powerful, moving, and quiet film with one of the best comeback performances ever. I found the story to be equally intriguing, insightful, and amusing. And I loved the performances by Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, and Mickey Rourke. The Wrestler is a criminally underappreciated film. For more on my thoughts on this film, go here.

11. Hellboy II: The Golden Army

This film unfortunately got overshadowed by the anticipation and release of The Dark Knight. That’s really too bad, because Hellboy II is a perfect example of a sequel that builds and improves on its predecessor. It’s also an excellent example of how CGI, make-up, and puppetry should all be thought of as tools in the same toolbox instead of independent of each other. After all, you can’t build a house with just a hammer. Director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Blade II) perfectly blends all these elements to create one of the most imaginative fantasy worlds while still retaining the superhero movie aesthetic. I had a lot of fun with this film.

10. Slumdog Millionaire

I’m probably not the only American who found this film to be incredibly eye-opening. I now understand how it is India has such a high population and, thanks to this film, I will never need to visit. Slumdog is probably the third best film of its year (despite winning for Best Picture). It is a wonderful little fable that is as sobering as it is magical. Watching the trailer makes me anxious to see it again. And the soundtrack kicks ass.

9. Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist

This film was a delightful surprise, primarily because of its performances. What is ultimately a tired searching-around-the-Big-City-for-the-drunken-friend plot is elevated by the chemistry of its leads. Yes, I wish Michael Cera would move forward from his awkward teenage hipster persona. But it works very well here. And Kat Dennings is perhaps the coolest girl a young twenty-something could find. A very funny and charming film.

8. Incredible Hulk

This pseudo-sequel to the 2003 failure is exactly what Hulk fans could possibly hope for. It’s a chase film (as all Hulk stories are) with plenty of smashing. Some unique casting provided some surprises (although Jennifer Connelly from the last film was the perfect Betsy Ross). And the introduction of comic villains Abomination and The Leader (who was set up for a sequel), as well as mention of the Super Solder program, was delicious fodder for fans.  Check out my June 2008 review here.

7. Zack & Miri Make a Porno

I didn’t think this movie was excellent, but did enjoy this more than other people. Justin Long is hilarious in his scene. And Elizabeth Banks holds her own as the beautiful new foul-mouthed Kevin Smith gal pal. It’s also great to see Jeff Anderson back in something that isn’t Clerks-related. Very funny. Very sweet.

6. Bolt

This was a surprise. What could’ve been yet another sub-par Disney flick turned out to be a jaw-dropping, sweet, well-plotted tale. Jaw-dropping? Yes, just look at that incredible opening sequence! And the CG animation was actually on par with Pixar films; not something that can be said about most animated movies these days.  Bolt is a family favorite at my house and one that is worth revisiting for years to come.

5. Role Models

A close second as my favorite comedy of 2008. This movie works as well as it does because of Christopher Mintz-Plasse and his Renaissance Guild plot. If it were just the foul-mouthed black kid or anything else, this movie wouldn’t be nearly as interesting or unique as it is. Plus, the film has a lot of heart in it, as usual in Judd Apatow productions. Sean William Scott is still playing Stifler, but we can excuse that given everything else this film provides.

4. Tropic Thunder

Ingenious. We haven’t seen a film that sends up Hollywood this well in a long time. Robert Downey isn’t just great because of what he does; he’s great because of how the people around him respond to his whacked-out Method actor – and how he responds back. This is an excellent premise that is brilliantly executed. And the fact that it brings Hollywood pariahs Tom Cruise and Matthew McConaughy hilarious performances is icing on the cake.

3. Wall-E

A film about a trash compactor that is mostly silent for the first half hour? This film should not be able to exist. But because it’s Pixar, it does – thankfully. Wall-E is a gorgeously animated, stunning, lovely film. If you’re not impressed with this film’s animation then you’re just not paying attention – or too young to know any better. The detail in lighting and realism and beauty of space is unbelievable. Wall-E is a remarkable achievement in a family-friendly package.

2. Iron Man

Who didn’t have fun at Iron Man? 2008 was a great year for both Iron Man and Robert Downey. While Tony Stark was initiating a registration act for superheroes in the comics, he was kicking box office butt. And Robert Downey started the year with a bang with this film and went on to comedy gold with the aforementioned Tropic Thunder, which earned him a couple awards nominations. Iron Man was a basic, yet intelligent superhero flick with global relevance. And Downey was charismatic as hell as Tony Stark. Iron Man would also ignite fanboy message boards as it initiated a franchise cross-over still yet to be fully realized.

1. The Dark Knight

Being a comic book geek and Batman fan, how could this not be my favorite film of the year? Further more, as a movie aficionado, with this film’s depth, sincerity, character development, and plotting how can anything else stack above it? I’ve sung this movie’s praises enough already. Go here for more of my thoughts about this film.

Those are my favorite films of 2008.  I hope you found that interesting or at least inspired you to re-watch some of these films.  Next time on Film Faves: 2007.  What were some of your favorites?  Feel free to share your thoughts below in the comments section.

Remember That Movie: An American Werewolf in London

Ok, so imagine you’re a nurse in London. You’ve had three one-night stands and a couple bad relationships. You work for a doctor that’s pleasant enough, but can be a bit arrogant to his patients. One day, a guy comes in with lacerations on his face and chest. The details of his ordeal are a bit mysterious, but the official claim is he was attacked by a serial killer, or something of the sort. He gets treated and seems fine until three months after his arrival he comes into consciousness and soon after he begins talking about being attacked by a wolf. In fact, he’s insistent and bewildered by claims that he was attacked by a man. He’s otherwise cute and charming enough and you get along with him rather well. You even stay by his side to read to him when he’s having nightmares in the middle of the night. Well, one night, imagine you hear him scream and you run into his room where he suddenly kisses you and confesses that he’s a werewolf – that his dead friend visited him and told him so.

What do you do?

You’re torn between feeling very sorry for him and finding him very attractive – that combined with your awesome history with men clearly makes a winning formula for a promising relationship. So naturally, you bring him home with you and make sweet, sweet love to him to the music of Van Morrison.

This describes the implausible subplot of An American Werewolf in London, the 1981 classic directed by John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Three Amigos!). Yes, Landis is primarily a comedy director and he does inject some humor effectively into this horror romp (such as the jovial suicide brainstorm session with a woman moaning in sexual pleasure in the background). Actually, because Landis mostly restricts his humor to the dialogue, this acts less like a romp and more like a slow-burn. This is what makes a great horror, people: horror that takes its time, builds character, and reduces the comic relief to some well-written dialogue.

And this is why An American Werewolf in London mostly holds up today. The film opens leisurely over an empty desert country while ‘Blue Moon’ plays in the background. Our main character, David, doesn’t get attacked until 15 minutes into the film – and he doesn’t transform into a werewolf until 45 minutes later! Most films of this genre are so anxious to get to the scares that they sacrifice character and tension. I didn’t find An American Werewolf in London particularly scary as much as an effective werewolf story. That’s a compliment, because the film isn’t as worried about scaring its audience as telling a good, coherent story. It takes its time to explain its idea of what happens when someone becomes a werewolf and to those torn to shreds.

Also, Landis takes a page from Spielberg’s Jaws and resists showing the werewolf as much as possible. We see quick flashes of eyes and snarling teeth and the camera occasionally switches to the creature’s point of view as it approaches its victims. This was a smart choice, because it suggests Landis knew the restrictions of his time. If a puppet or an animatronic animal is shown too much, it looks silly and won’t hold up. The film comes dangerously close to this problem during its chaotic climax, but everything that’s come before helps prevent this from becoming much of an issue.

It should be noted that one of the film’s biggest achievements is the creature effects by Rick Baker. A sudden fit turns into one of the greatest, most painful physical transformations ever put to film. And it’s all due to Baker’s work, with a little help from David Naughton’s acting. Also, the make-up of the attack victims – especially on Griffin Dunne’s decaying corpse – is excellent.

What doesn’t work well anymore (if ever) is not only the subplot, but the dream sequences that mostly feature David running naked through the woods. They are silly and don’t effectively convey what must be a subconscious transformation into something horrifying. But these are small grievances of what is mostly an excellently executed horror story. It’s a shame films like these are a rarity in the genre.


Should you see it? Rent

An American Werewolf in London is available in two special edition DVDs and a Full Moon Blu-Ray.